In the food halls of Galeries Lafayette I saw a Chinese man in the checkout queue buying 15 or more packets of the fanciest Le Bordier butterby Wendell Steavenson / December 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Sitting in a crêperie on the Brittany coast, high blue winter day, mussels on the rocks at low tide, half way through a mouthful of crispy buttery crêpe complète, the classic buckwheat crêpe folded over ham, cheese and a fried egg.
“It’s a great crisis!” said my friend Laurent, explaining how the specialities of Brittany—Kouign-amann, sablé biscuits, the very crêpes we were eating—were under threat. “There is a shortage of butter in France! It’s a catastrophe!”
In October the French press was full of alarmist headlines and pictures of empty butter shelves in supermarkets and reports of puff pastry workers being laid off. “La penurie du Beurre!” the cry went up. The Minister of Agriculture faced questions in the Assemblée Nationale. The European market price of butter has doubled since last year. Pâtissières and bakers were quoted as being worried about the higher costs and difficulties in sourcing from their usual suppliers. Butter was being delivered that had been frozen. What would happen to the Christmas specialities of Bûche de Noël and galette des rois without butter? The New York Times, the Economist, the FT and other august publications ran stories, unable to resist the irony of the French running out of butter.
The French themselves were less amused. For them, butter is elemental. They eat 8kg of butter per head per year, more than any other nation; the English consume only 3.2kg. It is breakfast (croissant au beurre), lunch (jambon-beurre), and dinner (where every recipe begins: “melt a knob of butter in a pan”). Butter is a point of national pride and identity. The threat of shortage touched a nerve, bringing back memories of the war, when there was no butter for years. This time a new invasion was to blame: the Chinese, who had, apparently, developed a taste for rich buttery viennoiserie.
But the situation turned out to be a little more, compliqué. The price of butter had indeed spiked from €2,500 per ton in April 2016 to €6,800 in September 2017. But the real problem wasn’t the Chinese, it was one of distribution. French supermarkets negotiate prices with the big industrial producers only once a year, in February, and as the price of butter had since risen vertiginously, the producers had sold their butter abroad on the more profitable open market. But in the meantime the French public…